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THE NATION

New Bayonet Puts Marine Corps on the Cutting Edge

A sharper weapon that can better double as a fighting knife is being issued. The blade, which can pierce body armor, is tested in Afghanistan.

January 19, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — In an era of remote-control, ultra-high-technology weaponry, the Marine Corps is looking to an updated version of a fighting tool that dates from the 17th century: the bayonet.

Within a few months, the Corps plans to equip each Marine with a bayonet that is sharper and stronger than its World War II predecessor and also can double more effectively as a fighting knife.

"We've created this myth that we can stay in the clouds and win wars," said bayonet expert Homer Brett, who serves as a consultant to the Marine Corps. "But the only way to control territory is with infantry, and for the individual fighter on the ground, a bayonet is indispensable."

The weapon upgrade is part of a push begun two years ago by then-Commandant Gen. James L. Jones to expand and toughen hand-to-hand combat training for Marines, including more training in the martial arts and knife fighting.

The new bayonet -- with a steel blade 8 inches long, 15/16 inches wide and which weighs 1 1/4 pounds with its scabbard -- is slightly longer, thicker and heavier than the current model.

A sharper point and serrations near the handle help penetrate body armor that many modern adversaries wear.

In one demonstration, a prototype was able to pierce a punching bag covered with aircraft aluminum and a bulletproof flak jacket.

Also, the handle is more oval than round to prevent repetitive-stress injuries during training.

"We spent a lot of time making sure the handle was ergonomically correct,'' said Nick Trbovich Jr., president and chief executive of Ontario Knife Co., which won the Marine bayonet contract after a yearlong competition. ''There are no blister points on the handle. The Marines are the best and they deserve the best."

The Franklinville, N.Y., firm already provides knives for Air Force pilots and Navy SEALs, bayonets for the Army and combat machetes.

With an order of up to 120,000, the projected cost per bayonet is $36.35. The weapon got its first test by troops in Afghanistan.

''We hope they never have to use it, but if they do, we want Marines to have the best equipment possible,'' said Maj. Renee Holmes, project officer for the bayonet testing program run by the Marine Corps Systems Command in Quantico, Va.

Trainees at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego get their first instruction in using the bayonet as a lethal weapon on their 10th day.

"The reality of being in the Marine Corps sets in when they fix the bayonet for the first time," said Staff Sgt. James Hall, who teaches bayonet fighting. "It all becomes real to them."

The essence of bayonet fighting is to spring forward -- "Spring, not hop!" Hall bellowed to recruits -- from a modified crouch and thrust the blade into the enemy.

Recruits are taught how to slash an enemy diagonally from shoulder to hipbone and how to use a bayonet to push aside the enemy's weapon.

"The purpose of a bayonet is to stick your enemy as quickly and as many times as freaking possible," Hall told 300 recruits.

"Yes, sir!" they shouted.

Tradition holds that the modern bayonet, modeled after a knife attached to a lance used by medieval knights, was invented in Bayonne, France, in the early 17th century.

The weapon's heyday came during those centuries when battles were fought by facing armies in headlong assaults.

In 1757, Frederick the Great issued his famous order: "By push of bayonets; no firing till you see the whites of their eyes."

The advent of heavy artillery decreased their usefulness. Bayonet charges during the trench warfare of World War I were notably unsuccessful.

World War I British infantry officer and poet Wilfred Owen, in his lament "Soldier's Dream," wishes that God "rusted every bayonet with His tears."

In a modern context, bayonets are known to be particularly good for controlling prisoners, poking an enemy to see whether he is dead and for when the fighter is out of ammunition or so close to the enemy that firing a round is impossible.

"You could find yourself in a Afghan cave someday where a bayonet is going to be very helpful," Hall told the recruits as their eyes widened.

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